Tag Archives: Jesus of Nazareth

Hijacking Jesus

Just went to hear Dan Wakefield talk on his new book, The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. I had to arrive late to the talk because I was meeting with a wedding couple, but what I heard was fascinating. One small sample: Dan Wakefield attended a worship service at one of the big evangelical mega-churches. He said he found “nothing offensive” about the sermon or most of the worship service — until it came to be time for communion. Then the minister said, “Normally we like everyone to participate in every part of the worship service, but not when it comes to communion.” Only those who had been “born-again” were allowed to participate, and then the minister told a story about someone who had not been born again but had taken communion, and then (drumroll please) died. Dan Wakefield reported that the minister finished the story by adding, “Graveyards are filled with those who took communion without being born again.”

Another small excerpt from the talk: the religious right group who call themselves “dispensationalists” believe in different “dispensations” during different historical eras. In practice, this means that in certain historical eras, parts of the Bible may be (should be) ignored. In the current historical era, they tell us to ignore the “Sermon on the Mount” — you know, where Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Dan Wakefield also told us about the progressive evangelicals, and he told us that just recently progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis have split from the main body of evangelical Christians in the United States, the National Evangelical Association, to form a new evangelical group called “Red Letter Christians.” They call themselves “Red Letter Christians” because in many Bibles, the words of Jesus are printed in red. They say they would like to get back to those teachings of Jesus — you know, teachings like “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

During the question and answer period, I asked Dan Wakefield if his research for this book had changed his own religious or devotional life. Yes, he said. He found himself going back to re-read parts of the Bible that he hadn’t looked at in years, particularly the words of Jesus. And he also found himself attracted to the passion of evangelical Christianity. Although he himself is a liberal Christian (who has belonged to both Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches), he said that much of mainline Protestant Christianity is not longer exactly passionate about religion. He also mentioned his attraction to the emergent church — and since he must be getting close to 70 now, this shows that the emergent church is not just for twenty-somethings.

He pointed out that during the Civil Rights era, white northern mainline Prostestants could go down South and participate in passionate worship services led by Martin Luther King and others, worship where you sang and prayed filled with emotion — but, says Dan Wakefield with dry sarcasm, this was somehow acceptable because these worship services were in the South and led by this charismatic African American man; and once they got back north, it was back to the usual.

Once I read the book, perhaps I’ll have some more to say about it. In the mean time, it’s worth buying the book just for the title alone. It will be displayed prominently in my office at church, I can assure you.

Dan Wakefield will be speaking on his new book on April 27, 7 p.m. at First and Second Church, Boston. For the rest of his schedule: link.

Jesus in Jerusalem, part 2

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and here’s another story from this work-in-progress. This is very much a Unitarian version of the Easter story (betraying my own religious background; I was born a Unitarian, just before merger), in which there is no thought that Jesus might be God; this, as you will see, changes the story from the traditional version. In the book, this will follow a story about the events of Palm Sunday (“Jesus in Jerusalem, part 1,” not yet complete). Note that this is still a rough draft.

Jesus in Jerusalem, part 2

Copyright (c) 2006 Dan Harper

On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem; the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus couldn’t help but see that around the edges of the Temple there were people selling everything from goats to pigeons, and other people who would change money for you, for a fee. Besides that, Jesus saw all kinds of people coming and going, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple, carrying all kinds of gear and equipment and baskets. But on that first day, he and his followers just watched all this, and then left.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer. How could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

His followers and many other people thought Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did it managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. He quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Leviticus where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem, and they became concerned about Jesus. They realized that when Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder.

After the Seder, even though it was after dark Jesus and his followers went to a garden to sit for a while. All his followers fell asleep, but Jesus himself was restless and depressed and stayed awake. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t regret anything he had said or done, for after all what he had said was the truth; but he was restless. He didn’t know how or when he might be arrested, but he was pretty sure it would happen sometime soon.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder while he sat in the garden, while his followers were still sleeping. Jesus was put on trial that same night, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. He died on Friday, when the sun was about to go down.

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill, where the body would be safe until after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

This whole story happened two thousand years ago, so we’ll never know quite what happened. But what might have happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had already come along buried the body. Jesus’s followers must have been disorganized and confused that morning, and though they all were upset Jesus was dead, they also worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, and even put to death. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not all the followers got told when and where the burial was.

So by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body. Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and after that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. All of his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

But you could say that Jesus did live on through his teaching. What he taught about the power of love has changed the world. He taught that we should love all people as we love ourselves; and if you can really live your life that way, you’ll find that your world will be changed, too.

More on “lovemarks”

I’ve begun to hear more talk about what happens to kids who grew up as Unitarian Universalists, and then left our congregations. My older sister is one of those people, and in response to my series of posts on “Lovemarks,” she sent this long comment about the “new Unitarian Unviersalism”:

Your comments about the new Unitarian Universalism (UU) nailed it for me: I find UU largely offputting now. The jargon — seven principles? — the stuff — the chalice? — the almost lockstep political correctness — these elements of UU now are not the thoughtful, considering, curious UU I grew up with. UU has become a brand, and the brand is not one I particularly connect to, nor feel welcomed by. There was a certain mystery to the UU we grew up with, and I don’t think this came simply from being a wide-eyed child; for me the mystery was embodied in the amazing things we learned in Sunday school about art and science and our pal Jesus. In UU as I remember it, Jesus too had some mystery — not of the religious sort, but of the kind of mystery embedded in any very passionate person who believes in doing right, asking hard questions, teaching a new way of looking at the world, and then with clarity acts on those beliefs.

I look at UU now and I see a rather cookie-cutter multiculturalism, as if indeed we all are one big family, loving everyone everywhere. Really? What really gets me, and I’m thinking about particular upper-class communities here [in Indiana], is that all the do-goodingness seems to happen somewhere else. Instead of going to the other side of town, well-meaning Unitarian Universalists go to the inner city. Instead of interacting genuinely with people of different socioeconomic classes in the ordinary transactions of life, there is a dramatic intentionality to interactions: find someone noticeable, different, clearly other, and “help” them.

Clearly I’m focusing on class issues; it seems that caring about class, especially lower class white folks, is not cool in UU — race and ethnicity and sexual orientation are. I would argue that class issues are one of the most important things we can focus on right now. The split between those who have and those who do not is growing wider and wider. Yes it’s interwoven with race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, but at the heart of the great divide in this country is socioeconomic privilege, or lack thereof.

I will qualify this by saying I don’t think this willful blindness to class is unique to UU’s. I am seeing it right now in the institution where I work [part of the state university system]. An alternative spring break is planned here, as I imagine it is in innumerable places, to go “help” the “victims” of Katrina by working for Habitat for Humanity. This is worthy, of course, and who knows, I may even go myself. But I also think that projects like this are not enough. They are showy, contained, and somewhere else. After a week of doing good then we all come home, safe, back to life as usual. What if, I wonder, we spent a day every week “doing good”? There are houses here, in this town, that are riddled with lead paint, asbestos in the basement, mold in the walls. What about them? What if we spent an hour every day working on that? An hour a day simply “doing good”? Or every damn minute of every day no matter where we are or who we meet? Jesus did. That’s kinda why we liked him. And if I recall correctly, he loved everyone. Equally.

But, what do I know. I’m just a grumpy English professor.

Love, Jean

Yup. Just remember, the key point of my series of posts on “Lovemarks” was actually quite subversive. OK, Unitarian Universalism has been turned into a kind of brand name. So take that a step further, apply the latest thinking in marketing, and turn Unitarian Universalism into a “Lovemark.” With a lovemark, the consumer owns it, not the big corporation. This means we own Unitarian Universalism. Us. Not them.

(Can you imagine if Jean, or my younger sister Abby, lived near my church? I’d make them come and teach Sunday school, infecting another generation of kids with mystery, stories of our pal Jesus, and those impossibly high ideals we learned as Unitarian Universalist kids. Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah!)

One moment

One meeting after another in the morning, enough time to run out and grab a quick sandwich, another meeting in the early afternoon, then on to the pile of paperwork on the desk and the backlog of email in the computer. At 4:30 I thought: this is necessary work but.

I grabbed a few minutes and climbed up into the attic space over to the left of the pulpit where there is a stash of old sermons. At random I pulled out “Jesus the Man” preached by Rev. Richard Huff in 1954. Back in the office I blew the dust off and started to read. But. Bible scholarship has made a lot of progress in the past fifty years. I didn’t agree with Richard Huff’s main line of argument. There was the inevitable disappointment of reading something meant to be listened to during a complete worship service. I grew annoyed. But. I couldn’t help thinking of the 150 people who probably heard it that long-ago Sunday morning before I was born. I couldn’t help getting a feel for the congregation that listened to that sermon. People grounded in good common sense. People willing to use reason in religion. People who were headed somewhere. Oh yeah I said that’s why we do this. To keep the doors open for people like that. To keep the doors open for us. So we can do religion together not agreeing completely and arguing and annoying each other maybe even loving each other under all the annoyance. As we head in the general direction of truth and goodness. There’s more to it than that but that was enough for this afternoon. A good thing this was enough because just then the phone rang.

Work in progress

The story below is one of the stories I have been working on. It comes from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97. Thomas is one of the many gospels that did not make it into the final canonical edition of the Christian Bible. But it remains of interest, since it is another historical record of Jesus. Although the story is protected under coypright, feel free to make personal copies as long as you include the copyright notice.

The Empty Jar

copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, one of the followers asked, “Master, what will it be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established?”

“Let me tell you a story that will explain,” said Jesus, and he told this story.


Once upon a time, there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, just two or three miles away, where there was a market.

She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, nor did she even have well-made pottery jars with pretty decorations. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, or coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.


When Jesus stopped talking, his followers respectfully waited a little while longer, because they did not think that could be the end of the story. But Jesus stopped talking. They all sat in silence for a while, and one of the followers finally said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand.” Still Jesus did not explain further, and went off by himself to sleep.

The followers still did not understand the story. They sat up longer talking about the story. “It is like the story when the prophet Elijah goes to the widow of Zarephath,” said one of the followers. “God told Elijah to go there and she would feed him, but the widow did not even have enough flour for herself and her son. Elijah tells her to bake three loaves anyway, and she finds that she does have enough flour after all, for God has provided for her. Indeed, the jar of flour is still just as full as it was before Elijah had arrived. Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, we will not have to worry where our food comes from.”

“You mean like when Jesus said, the lilies in the fields don’t go to work and yet they have enough to eat,” said one of the other followers. “Perhaps you are right, but I think Jesus is telling us that we will find the Kingdom of God in the most unexpected places. He also taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small you can hardly see it, but one that grows into a huge plant.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said a third follower, “but a mustard seed can grow, and an empty jar of flour cannot grow into anything but hunger. I think Jesus is talking about the poor, who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the woman in the story, those who are poor and hungry have no flour at all. She will be one of the ones who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No one else had anything to say, and they sat in silence for a while. At last, another one of Jesus’s followers stood up. “It’s time to go to sleep,” she said. “I don’t think any of us really understand that story, but Jesus got us to think hard about what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. We have thought, and now it’s time to sleep, because there is a long walk in store for tomorrow. Just like the woman in the story. Though unlike that woman, you won’t have to carry a heavy jar of flour on your back.”

With that, they all went off to sleep.

Good advice

I came across an old Unitarian Universalist curriculum pamphlet the other day, A Guide to the Study of Jesus To Be Used with “Who Do Men [sic] Say That I Am?” by Susanna Wilder Heinz, published by Beacon Press in 1966. Ms. Heinz writes:

The study of the life and teachings of Jesus is best left for the adolescent years…. This is not to say that we should remain completely silent about Jesus until a child reaches his [sic] teens. To do so is to permit the teaching about Jesus to be done by default. If we remain silent, the neighbor’s children won’t! It is with dismay that some parents who follow the laissez faire method of ‘let him make up his own mind when he is old enough,’ discover that they no longer have a child grown into a liberal religious adult, but a child grown into his neighbor’s religion.

Seems to me this remains good advice today, nearly four decades later.